Ukrainian Officials Criticize Pope Francis’ "white flag" Remarks on Russia-Ukraine War

Speaking in his Angelus address on March 3, 2024, about the Israel-Hamas war, Pope Francis made an emotional plea for negotiations to reach a deal that both frees the hostages immediately and grants civilians access to humanitarian aid. | Credit: Vatican Media

Ukrainian officials and religious leaders have leveled criticism at Pope Francis in the days since the Holy Father suggested that it would be courageous for Ukraine to negotiate an end to its war with Russia.

In an excerpt of an interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI, which will be released in full on March 20, Pope Francis suggested that “the strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates.”

“When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate,” the pope continued. 

“Our flag is a yellow and blue one. This is the flag by which we live, die, and prevail. We shall never raise any other flags,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote in a post on X on March 10 in response to the pope’s comments. 

Kuleba disputed the pope’s comments that it would be “courageous” to negotiate with Russia, writing: “The strongest is the one who, in the battle between good and evil, stands on the side of good rather than attempting to put them on the same footing and call it ‘negotiations.’”


Kuleba further criticized the Holy See. “When it comes to the white flag, we know this Vatican’s strategy from the first half of the 20th century,” he said. 

“I urge to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to support Ukraine and its people in their just struggle for their lives,” he said. 

Ukrainian Ambassador to the Holy See Andrii Yurash issued his own rebuke to the pope in a March 11 interview with NBC, saying: “Nobody at the time of World War II was proposing to the people enslaved by Hitler or those who were suffering or fighting him to start peace negotiations.” 

The ambassador suggested that just as a truce with Hitler would have meant “suicide and death,” a truce with Russian President Vladimir Putin would also constitute “suicide and death.”

The pope’s remarks also generated responses from ecclesial communities in Ukraine, including the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, the latter an interreligious association aimed at fostering dialogue and collaborating in church-state relations in the predominantly Orthodox country. 

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“Ukrainians cannot surrender because surrender means death,” the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church wrote in a statement released on Monday. 

“Notwithstanding the suggestions for need for negotiations coming from representatives of different countries, including the Holy Father himself, Ukrainians will continue to defend freedom and dignity to achieve a peace that is just,” the statement continued.

Arguing that “the intentions of Putin and Russia are clear and explicit,” the synod also suggested that the war is not just a unilateral action waged by the Russian government but is supported by “70% of the Russian population” as well as by “Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations on Sunday also issued a statement, “categorically declar[ing] that no one will ever force our people to capitulate.” 

“To capitulate to the triumphant evil is tantamount to the collapse of the universal idea of justice, a betrayal of the fundamental guidelines bequeathed to us in great spiritual traditions,” their statement continued.


The Holy See Press Office quickly qualified the pope’s statements late on Saturday night, suggesting that the 87-year-old pontiff “intended to call for a cease-fire and to relaunch the courage of negotiation,” adding that “the pope uses the term white flag, and responds by picking up the image proposed by the interviewer, to indicate a cessation of hostilities, a truce reached with the courage of negotiation.” 

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, also issued clarifying remarks in a Monday, March 11, interview with Corriere della Sera, saying that it is incumbent upon Russia “as the aggressor” to “put an end to the aggression."

“The war unleashed against Ukraine is not the effect of an uncontrollable natural disaster but of human freedom alone, and the same human will that caused this tragedy also has the possibility and responsibility to take steps to put an end to it and pave the way to a diplomatic solution,” the Vatican’s top diplomat said.

But Parolin reiterated the pope’s concerns that a protracted conflict could escalate into a larger conflict and exacerbate an already-large humanitarian crisis, saying that it would bring “new suffering, new deaths, new victims, new destruction.”